Steve Hiltner: Solutions to Princeton’s Yardwaste Problem

Stephen Hiltner

By Stephen Hiltner

There was a time, in the 1950s, when a smokestack belching pollution was seen not as a blight but as a symbol of prosperity. That capacity to put positive spin on a negative lives on in Princeton’s practice of piling yardwaste in the streets year-round. The detritus left to rot at the curb, which I have long interpreted as an unnecessary mess, may in some eyes be considered proof of a homeowner’s good work to keep the yard clean.

The visual effect, though, is similar to wearing old work boots with a suit, to show how hard one worked to buy the suit.

As yardwaste piles up along our streets during this summer lull in service, some nostalgia has been expressed for the year-round, every-other-week pickup in the former borough. Why am I not nostalgic? In my portion of the former borough, no sooner would the giant “claw” and its ironclad entourage come by to purge the neighborhood of its squalor than some homeowner would be tossing more yardwaste out for the next pickup two weeks hence.

I admit to having viewed this habit as truly annoying, even though a clean street, like a smokeless smokestack, can suggest a disturbing lack of industry, with weeds going unpulled and shrubs untrimmed.

I admit as well to sometimes seeing larger and darker portents for society in the juxtaposition of private order and public burden that yardwaste piled in front of a manicured lawn represents. While we keep our individual “houses in order”, the public space gets dumped upon. This, to me, does not constitute civic pride.

More recently, a new symbol of civic pride and green sensibility has shown up along streets, in the form of those snazzy little green rollout bins for organic waste. They have significant utilitarian advantages–a lid to keep the rain out, and wheels to aid transport. And while loose yardwaste sits for weeks at the curb, usurping parking spaces, forcing bicyclists out into traffic, attracting the markings of dogs, and shedding its nutrients into local streams when it rains, the green bin only lingers on the curb for a day.

Other municipalities have used a larger version of the rollout bin for year-round yardwaste pickups. Augmented by yardwaste bags and other services, such as fall leaf pickup and special pickups for large amounts of brush, this containerized approach would provide an efficient, consistent service free of seasonal gaps (details at PrincetonPrimer.org).

Another part of the solution is to use a portion of one’s yard as nature intended, to cycle organic matter back into the soil rather than export it out of town. Every time I put yard trimmings on a pile to decompose in a back corner of the property, screened by shrubs, I keep the curb clean and leave public works staff a little more time to tackle the mountain of other tasks left undone because of the incessant scramble to clean streets. That, to me, is a truer expression of civic pride.